Surrounded by hundreds of mysterious serene faces carved on massive stone towers, scrambling through the rubble of a temple whose walls look like they would have fallen over if they were not intertwined with the massive root systems of ancient trees, these are the memories of the Cambodian temples that I loved the most on my first visit. Sure, Angkor Wat is the star attraction, and it is breathtaking and impressive and unmissable, but it is a couple of the smaller temples in Angkor Thom and nearby that worked their charm on me the most, and I am looking forward to seeing them again five years later.
The mysterious carved stone heads of the Bayon
Imagine being surrounded by 216 large carved stone heads all smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa -I am told they are all images of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshara, although some claim the faces also have a passing resemblence to the ruler who presided over the building of much of Angkor’s grandeur including the Bayon, King Jayavarman VII. To me however, each head, each smile, seems subtly different. I find it easy to start attributing each of them a personality, a story to fit their expression. They adorn the four sides of all fifty four towers on the third and top tier of the pyramid, facing due north, south, east and west.
The bayon hides its treasures well. On first approach it looks a bit nondescript, a rough pyramid of three layers of big blocks of stone, with quite a few fallen to the ground around it. Its only on close inspection that the walls on the outside and on the first level reveal a series of bas relief carvings to rival those of Angkor,depicting scenes of battles, daily life and even a circus. Its easy to miss these in the rush to the top to see the heads, but it is well worth stopping and circling these picture stories for a while. Even for these levels, if I look up I find it very hard to spot the carved heads just above. I scramble up very steep stone stairs to the top level, and finally find myself staring at these intriguing heads with their hint of a smile. Some are in good condition, some very worn, some have parts missing, so every direction I look is a different vista, and I find it almost meditiative to circle around and around the top tier, watching different faces spring in and out of view while I circle. The effect of the light at different times of the day here is quite compelling, as different faces and profiles are highlighted as the sun moves through the day. My favourite is first thing in the morning, just after sunrise, when the early morning light throws some carvings into bright light and some into dark contract.
This is how I saw them the first time. On this trip I will visit them twice. First I see them about 9am, after seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat. This seems early but already the sun is higher and harder, reducing the early morning contrast. Its also a lot more crowded, as many people come here after their Angkor Wat sunrise, whereas the previous couple of hours are much less crowded, more tranquil. Two days later I return at 7am, just after dawn, but the clouds roll in for the first day of the rainy season, so there is no soft dawn light picking out faces, its a much darker and sterner picture today.
Ta Prohm – The myth of the overgrown temple held together by the roots of the trees growing over it.
Maybe not completely a myth, but also not completely true. My other favourite temple is a photographers dream (except for the crowds), and any quick google search will reveal thousands of atmospheric black and white photos of old trees towering over a tumble of old stone blocks on weird angles, tied together by hundreds of exposed tree roots. But if you arrive thinking it will look like you have just stumbled upon a long lost temple hidden in the bush, you will be disappointed. It has been cleared of much of the growth, leaving in place just the biggest and most spectacular mergers of trees and ruins, making it more accessible, and no doubt easier to photograph (except for the crowds). In spite of that, it is still fantastic to wander through, finding odd corners with no apparent restoration work or clearing out at all, and yes, fantastic to photograph. I may have mentioned the crowds – its not only my favourite, it is a fav of just about every visitor to the area, and its quite a small temple compared to its neighbours, so I just have to grin and bear it, its popular for a reason. Its a great challenge of both my photography and patience to frame up my shot and then wait, and wait, for that split second when there is a gap in the crowds to steal that shot, looking as though the place is actually deserted – its not unusual for it to take me ten minutes or more to grab one shot.
Five years ago I remember there being a boardwalk path through the middle, and lots of unrestored areas off to both sides, some marked as out of bounds (but when scrambling around it was easy to miss the sign), where we could feel a real sense of possible risk and danger as we crawled over and under precariously leaning structures. I notice a marked difference this time. There is now a very extensive network of wooden boardwalks circling through the site, taking away the risk of twisting your ankle or having stones fall on your head, but also handling the volume of visitors better. As part of this, viewing platforms have been built for most of the iconic ruins/trees vistas, some even have roped off queueing areas to ensure everyone gets to the front of the line and gets a clear view. Remaining dangerous areas are completely roped and chained off, no chance to claim “I didn’t see the sign”! This is both fantastic progress and completely ruining my ability to put my superior ‘photo-grabbing” skills to the test. Using the walkways to navigate the site, I also notice that many of the walls and trees have substantial support structures built behind them, to shore them up without having to go to a full renovation. I also see one wall which had completely collapsed in the last five years, leaving the tree above it looking very unstable and ready to topple over itself, which reinforces to me just how hard it is to walk the fine line of keeping Ta Prohm in its popular “state of disrepair”, without it either collapsing completely under the weight of tourist numbers, or being renovated into a disney version of what it once was. It looks like they are doing a fine job of balancing all those concerns, I hope I get to go and visit again in the next five years and see what else has changed.
Do you have a favourite story or picture of the Bayon or Ta Prohm to share, did you visit many years ago and get to see a much less restored version?